Last weekend I went to CGX Montréal to hear a little about the commercial indie space in the Montréal context. It was largely in the hopes of getting more of a fix on what the pressures are on indie studios, and how people in the field deal with these intelligently. Unfortunately, the business-oriented talks I saw tended to be disappointing on this front, largely sticking to tried-and-true business formulas like: “know how much money you have”, “know your audience”, “don’t forget about tax credits”, “be careful with scope”, and “make sure you’ve got a great game idea”. I’m sure there are some people going into business who perhaps don’t know these extremely basic principles, but even then the presenters tended to just cite them and not offer much depth on how to actually deal with them.
In the end, by far the most interesting was actually a post mortem of a specific game: Steel Crate Games’ Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, given by one of the studio’s co-founders, Ben Kane. Ben spoke in a systematic fashion about the design, technical implementation, and business model of the game, going over successes, failures, and “unclear” results for each. I won’t recap his entire presentation here (although almost everything he said was interesting), but will rather point out that it was a great example of somebody who straddles multiple disciplines (programming, design, business development) out of necessity (a small studio), and is thus able to speak to the interrelationships these aspects have.
For example, Ben talked about how the team “found” the game in kind of interaction between design, technology, and business. The game was originally prototyped at the 2014 Global Game Jam, giving them the idea that they had “something” from a design standpoint (as well as the technical ability to progress it). At this point they made a business decision around the prototype, which was to agree to work seriously on it together as a team – though not yet a company. Their business plan centred around wanting simply not to end up in debt, rather than making money specifically. Instead, their key goals were to enjoy working together and to be able to attend indie game events like PAX.
This idea of going to indie events created a feedback loop for them around business-design-technology: the events created deadlines for prototypes, which they would then run event attendees through as a form of playtesting, which would lead to design decisions, which would lead to further prototyping for the next event deadline, and so on. As this progressed, they established their core design principle: the game should be about facilitating communication above all else. This was then expressed technically in their determination to have the interactions in the game be as simple as possible (all actions are done with a single button press, for example), because anything else would get in the way of talk. Business, design, technology. Going further, Ben talked about how attending the events naturally morphed into more of a straightforward marketing process, as their game became less in flux and more of a solid “real game” that they were in the process of polishing.
All that is not to say that he didn’t identify problems – there were several of those, most notably an impressively awful-sounding experience developing for mobile VR platforms, the incompatibility of their game with the key sphere of influence that is Twitch, and their failure to really engage seriously with social media. Still, it was that ability to speak to the interactions between aspects of game creation that are easy to think of as separate that I found compelling. The specificity of the talk was, frankly, a breath of fresh air after the “make a good game” material.
If you really want a single piece of advice, I think don’t end up in major debt is a pretty good one.